Faculty and Grads Deliver Art to Inner City

By Sheila Robertson

Saturday lunch is over at Friendship Inn. While some adults linger over coffee, a dozen children, aged roughly two to 10, have gathered around a tall man, whose long grey hair is pulled into a ponytail.

They've been painting: the images range from the familiar yin-yang symbol and a peace sign to rainbows and flowers. Dr. Peter Purdue of the University of Saskatchewan Art Department is demonstrating how glitter, sprinkled from a vial, sticks to wet paint.

"Isn't it fancy?" he asks eight-year-old Quinton, who's made the wheels sparkle on his picture of a blue race car. The boy beams. Two older kids have started a paint fight, and Purdue breaks it up by admonishing them gently, "Listen, guys, don't flick paint, `cause you'll get it on me!"

"Oh, good!" says a small girl. "Is it gonna be chocolate?"

Chocolate fingerpainting? The art classes Purdue's been giving a the Inn about twice a month for six years have featured drawing and painting, papier mache and clay. However, it seems the artistic medium of choice is Jello Instant Pudding-chocolate, preferably, though strawberry makes for fingerlicking good art, too.

Purdue shows newcomers how to smooth dabs of pudding over the shiny paper, then scratch out designs with their fingertips. The regulars are already hard at it. After spreading pudding thinly across her paper, Brittany, two, holds it up and thoughtfully licks it all off. Her big sister laughs.

Making marks on paper is important for youngsters, whether they're using paint or pudding, Purdue explains in an interview. "They can put a mark down and go away but it's still there. They realize they've created something, and we can agree it has meaning."

A specialist in art education and curriculum development, he started teaching 33 years ago. In his native New Zealand and in Canada, he's taught elementary and high school students, deaf children, emotionally disturbed youngsters and young offenders. He joined the Art Department at the U of S in 1986 and is now an associate professor, working mainly with education students. Purdue began volunteering at Friendship Inn, a United Way agency which provides meals and support to low-income people, "because I wanted to keep my hand in teaching," he says. "I've taught since I was 19, and I missed working with little kids."

Often, some of his university students help out. "They enjoy it, and it helps them learn management strategies."

All children should have the opportunity to do art, Purdue says. "It helps with their perceptual and intellectual development and their psychological adjustment. Pictures come before language."

At Friendship Inn, he encourages parents to participate, and to do art activities at home. He also ensures kids who want crayons and paper take some with them. The supplies, costing about $200 a year, are purchased in part by donations to Friendship Inn, and the Saskatchewan Soceity for Education through Art has also provided some money.

Purdue would like to see more people from the university community sharing their gifts with those who wouldn't ordinarily have access to them. "Prosperous people can pay for my skills," he says. "But working with kids whose parents can't afford paints or crayons, never mind art lessons, is a charitable act. It's also a lot of fun.

"I get much more out of this than I give."

Maureen Donnelly, a U of S grad who does volunteer work at Egadz youth centre in Saskatoon, agrees the experience is rewarding.

"When I was a teenager, I was a punk in London," she recalls in an interview at the centre for at-risk teens. "I wasn't a street kid, but my experiences weren't far removed from some of the stuff these kids are into. So I feel I can contribute in a small way."

She understands young people like Pat, 20, who regards Egadz as "a safe haven." He says its programs "help you get out of stuff that happens on the street."

Donnelly attained a Master of Fine Arts degree at the U of S in 1993. As her focus was photography and sculptural work, it was natural she should help with a documentary video project the youth are completing.

She's the visual consultant as they interview one another and discuss what Egadz means to them. "It's hands-on: you're actually doing something," she says: "It's a way I can give of myself and it's very satisfying. These are dynamic young people."

It's not only a creative outlet for some of the 60-to-70 teens who show up at Egadz every day. The final result, a 20-minute video, will be used to promote the five-year-old centre.

"We'll show it to service clubs and other organizations interested in our program," says Keith Honeyman, the recreation director and volunteer co-ordinator at Egadz.

Donnelly has a one-year commitment to Egadz. The experience helps her fulfill community service requirements for human justice studies through the University of Regina.